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Just over 550 community pharmacy staff members were referred for COVID-19 tests through a national booking system run by the Care Quality Commission (CQC), over ten days in mid-April 2020, the NHS watchdog has told The Pharmaceutical Journal.
In a statement issued on 5 May 2020, the CQC said the referrals for testing were sent through its online booking system, which it ran briefly, before the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) took on its longer-term management of booking tests.
Key workers, including community pharmacists, were sent an email on 18 April 2020 with details on how to access testing at one of the national testing sites through the CQC’s online system. There were some local schemes already in place for accessing tests at the time.
Some 567 pharmacy staff members were then referred for tests through this route before the DHSC took over the testing portal on 27 April 2020, the CQC said.
This comes after Matt Hancock, the health secretary, told MPs during a House of Commons Health and Social Care Select Committee meeting on 17 April 2020 that uptake of testing from NHS staff had been “lower than expected”.
However, the CQC clarified that its testing portal “was for people who did not have access to tests through other existing schemes” and that the figure only reveals the number of referrals for tests, rather than the number of tests carried out.
Deborah Crockford, chief officer of Community Pharmacy South Central, said testing for community pharmacy staff “was brought into the picture very late in the game”.
“Testing was not available on our patch for our community pharmacy teams until 21 April 2020, but realistically not until 27 April 2020, when the main portal opened for bookings,” she said, adding that she was told “every area was working at different rates”.
“We needed the support earlier on when we were already losing staff to potentially unnecessary self-isolation and trying to cope with excessive demand for prescriptions.
“It all added to the feeling that we were forgotten and just left exposed on the frontline without the proper and necessary support and recognition,” she said.
Nick Hunter, chief officer of Nottinghamshire, Rotherham and Doncaster local pharmaceutical committees, said he was “not really surprised at the low numbers”, adding that the impact of COVID-19 on the workforce was evident “in those first few weeks in March  and this was when testing was only in hospital cases”.
“It was around Easter or just before when we made any real headway,” he said, with pharmacists in some areas able to access testing by other means.
“The Boots site in Nottingham was one of the first national testing sites and as soon as that opened, so long as pharmacy staff had transport, we didn’t really have any problems.”
Boots provided staff for the national testing sites, the first of which started offering tests to community pharmacists and other frontline NHS staff during the weekend of 28 and 29 March 2020.
Hunter added that while pharmacists in Doncaster and Sheffield initially “secured access to the hospital testing”, test centres in Rotherham “were struggling with capacity”.
The Pharmaceutical Journal reported on 17 April 2020 that pharmacists in the West Midlands were able to secure a test for COVID-19 the day after requesting one from their local NHS England team.
Community pharmacy staff are now able to access tests through the DHSC online booking system.
The tests are available for pharmacy staff who are self-isolating because they are symptomatic, as well as for symptomatic household members, or in the case that a pharmacy staff member is isolating because of symptomatic household members.
Alastair Buxton, director of NHS services for the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee, said: “Whilst it took longer to establish a national system than anyone would have liked, we are pleased that community pharmacy team members have parity with other frontline healthcare workers.”
A spokesperson for the DHSC told The Pharmaceutical Journal that it was still working to compile a breakdown of testing data by key worker role, but added that as of 09:00 on 5 May 2020, 225,077 key workers and their relatives had been tested.